Monday, 31 December 2012

Reading in 2012

I've kept track of my reading for 2012 like I did for 2011. I read fewer books this year than last (though I wouldn't be far off if I counted unabridged audiobooks). Also of course I haven't counted titles like "Artifical Intelligence: a Modern Approach" or "Head-First Design Patterns". Here are the statistics:
  • Total number of books read: 174
  • Gender of authors of each book: 91 male, 78 female (the rest are anthologies)
  • Fiction vs non-fiction: 136 to 38
  • Number of re-reads: only 15
  • Number read on Kindle: 100 (57.47%)
It's not been quite such an interesting reading year as last year was. I think this is because so much of my energy has gone into the very tough course and the challenge of moving down to Devon and starting a new job in a completely new industry. I haven't taken so many reading risks, so I haven't had so many nice surprises. But there were a few books I enjoyed more than I had expected: Jerzy Pilch's The Mighty Angel, about a Russian drinker who falls in love, and Vanessa Gebbie's The Coward's Tale, about a Welsh mining village haunted by a terrible mine accident, are both more interesting than they sound from synopses. Pat McIntosh's series of murder mysteries set in fifteenth-century Glasgow is very good, as is Nicola Shulman's Graven with Diamonds, a biography of Thomas Wyatt. Lytton Strachey can really write, and is more interesting than he has any right to be, and Iain Pears is reliably great.

I read some mid twentieth-century stuff which I enjoyed, fiction in the form of Anthony Powell's surprisingly easy-to-read A Dance to the Music of Time, and non-fiction in the form of Nella Last's War and Call the Midwife, both of which took my breath away.

But leaving aside rereads, my favourite books of the year were, in reverse order:
  • Austin Wright, Tony and Susan, reviewed here
  • Craig Taylor, Londoners, reviewed here.
  • Tom Lubbock, 50 Great Paintings, reviewed here.
  • Muriel Spark, A Far Cry From Kensington. I seem not to have reviewed this yet. It's about a young fat widow called Mrs Hawkins who lives in a genteel boarding house in Kensington. She works in publishing, and the story mostly follows what comes from her designation of a hack called Hector Bartlett as a "pisseur de copie". This is a seriously brilliant book, and has to be one of the standing classics of the twentieth century.

Tuesday, 25 December 2012

Happy Christmas!

Happy Christmas, anyone who might be reading this. It's wierd how intensely Christmas forms its own traditions. In the last few years we've developed one in my family where my mother and I argue about the content of the midnight mass sermon. It was a pretty inane one last night. But heigh ho, that's not really the point. For once I found myself able to let go of that and enjoy being at that service with a group of people whose actions (if not their words) I admire. It's a Christmas miracle!

About a fortnight ago the people who sometimes graze their sheep on one of my parents' fields turned up at our front door with a carrier bag with half a lamb in it. So for Christmas dinner we had a big leg of lamb. It was very delicious. I don't know how far away it had to go to be killed, but it spent its life within a couple of hundred yards from where I am sitting now.

My mother gave me a device for forcing a hard-boiled egg into a cube shape. I feel quite good about this. I gave my grandma a book about her home city of Bath in the Blitz, with pictures from the time next to pictures of the same places now. Bath's blitz was short but intense. My grandma was a young woman at the time, working for the Ministry of Defence. She told me that she remembered her little niece Jenny, who was four or five years old, saying "You won't let them kill me will you aunty?". (We talked to the same Jenny, a self-assured old-aged-pensioner now, after lunch.) I hadn't known that one of my grandma's second cousins was killed together with her small child. I'm not entirely sure now whether the book was a good present. My grandma clearly finds it very interesting, but are the memories it's bringing back still painful? It's hard to tell. I find it interesting to hear about it, myself. I wished I had asked my grandpa before he died -- he was down in Plymouth at this point, which was far more badly hit, and he didn't move up to Bath and meet my grandma until 1943.

Saturday, 22 December 2012

Money and value

I have just had a royalty statement, and my Margaret book has earned £42.62 in royalties! I never thought that it would ever pay off the advance, which, although small in relative terms, seemed rather generous to me. So now I am an author who has not lost a publisher money! And I have £42.62 more than I did before. This is the sort of money which feels like it's worth more than its actual amount in pounds and pence.

The wierd thing is that it has sold over 500 copies overseas in 2011-12, far more than it has in previous years. So that's a bit odd.

In non-medievalist news, I have now been a professional Java programmer for just over two months. I am getting a tad more secure about it, though there are still tons of things with which I need to get to grips. I'm really enjoying the wierd feeling that I'm learning a new sort of articulacy! When I'm more settled down with Java I'm going to learn about Aspect Oriented Programming, and also Functional Programming, which seems to be Hot Right Now. I'm probably going to be doing the Sun Java Programmer Certification at work, and I'm going to make a few Android apps.

But I'm still going to be a medievalist again from time to time, I think. I do really want to finish off my charters book. I've started unpacking some of my book boxes labelled "Academic storage", and although I might do a bit of deaccessioning, I don't think I can part with most of them. But goodness knows where I will put them all. Plus it's possible that by the time I get round to anglo-saxoning again all this Java will have pushed all the Latin out of my brain.

Monday, 10 December 2012

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

5th December 2012

I'm currently gearing up to moving out of my parents' house and into a place of my own.  I took this morning off and spent most of it on hold to various utility companies.  It reminded me a bit of the death of Princess Diana, when the radio stations all played emergency chill-out music, with no lyrics but a woman doing vocalisations.  I think British Gas were playing Morcheeba, or maybe it was Leftfield -- very '90s.

It took me over two hours to get home tonight because the motorway was closed. My route involved a mile's walk and two separate lifts.  When I got back I found that my parents had taken a bizarre cue from Big Bang Theory and made Sheldon's favourite meal for dinner.  My mother literally explained it as Sheldon's favourite meal.  This is pasta with tomato sauce and chopped-up hot dogs.  I am now feeling guilty for being insufficiently grateful, though it did in fact taste quite bad.  (They had added lots of chopped onions and mushrooms, and I think my Dad may have put some ginger in.)

In internet news, Zoe Williams' article about the Metropolitan Police Force's new assault prevention advice has a link to this truly brilliant list of Sexual assault prevention tips guaranteed to work. The same website has lots of other good tips, like this handy guide to telling whether a toy is for boys or girls.

Friday, 23 November 2012

Pop love

This mix of more than 24 pop songs is very excellent (via popbitch):

I think maybe pop is so great because a lot of it is about feeling sad but deciding to be happy.  If that's true it would explain why the Pet Shop Boys are the best pop group ever.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Culm down

Here is the entrance to Uffculme. The river Culm is just round the corner, past the bend, under a bridge.

Oh no it's not!

I took this at the point where we gave up on the idea of leaving the village this morning -- we'd already tried the other two routes out.  It looks all peaceful but it was actually flowing quite strongly from right to left, with a surprisingly loud roaring noise.  Luckily the Met Office are understanding about people not getting in to work because of extreme weather conditions. The postwoman, who is an excellent cheery soul, eventually got here at about 3pm.  I'm hopeful I can get in tomorrow, if it doesn't rain too much over night.

The bad pun in the title is because I looked on twitter to see if anyone was saying anything about the Culm, and just got lots of mispellings of the word "calm".  We are a nation of illiterates.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012


On the other hand the downside of a job where you have to learn lots of things is that it takes a good deal of time before you can do anything useful at all. If I can get what I'm working on into the next release of the software then I may possibly do my first useful action in January. Which is quite a lot of time of not being any use.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

JavaProgrammer javaProgrammer = new JavaProgrammer(Rebecca);

The poet Milton was a bit of a bastard, and one of the ways he expressed this was by teaching his daughters to read, as in to pronounce out loud, Greek, so that by listening to them he could save his failing eyesight; but he did not teach them to read, as in understand, Greek, because they were girls. The way I feel about the things I'm learning at the moment at work is a bit like they might have felt if someone had suddenly decided to teach them Greek vocabulary and grammar. There are things I've been using for ages as just things that exist -- I'm thinking predominantly of XML, but other things too -- and now I'm beginning to learn how to manipulate the things that underlie them. "Why shouldn't you have your own RESTful web service?" said one of the contractors to me the other day. "Everyone else has one." So I'm learning how to write one, and I'm going to make my own as part of a big task I'm doing. Part of this involves learning how to eat XML. And when I know how to do this I will be able to go out onto the web and eat any XML I feel like, and use APIs, and do cunning things. It's all quite complex and it will take me years of learning to be good at it, but my department has a training budget (in terms of both money and time), and I will get the chance to sort these things out. Some people who sit near me are working through the Java Sun certification exams, which is something we are encouraged to do. I am feeling very good about this. I think I had thought of the M.Sc. year as my chance to learn things, and then I would do a job where I would put those things I had learnt into practice, but I probably couldn't get away with doing any more real serious learning until I retire (when I'm going to do a theology degree). What I hadn't realised was that the M.Sc. was just scratching the surface and setting us up for continuing to learn very similar material in more depth while working. Some of it's very complex and challenging stuff -- I'm thinking of design patterns in particular, which are logical ways of making systems which can be easily extended and altered. Deep down, what I like doing is learning things.

Of course all jobs have a honeymoon period, and after a couple of years you start to see how the politics work, and get depressed about that, but at present I am enjoying the Met Office hugely. I also get to do some metereological training, which is cool.

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Some things I saw on the internet

"Illiterate kids given sealed boxes with tablets figure out how to use, master, and hack them" sounds like something that would happen in a Neal Stephenson novel.

I want to visit these giant ear trumpets in Derbyshire.

Benjamin Dewey's Tragedy series no. 121 is quite good.

Some of these life hacks are great but I'm not at all sure what to make of the bagel caddy. A good idea or just really daft?

This thing exists: a Pet Shop Boys radio station that plays only Pet Shop Boys songs. (In the broad sense, though -- I just got Ian Wright's Do the Right Thing, co-written and produced by Chris Lowe.)

This four-year-old is crying for a specific reason:

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Another woman singing

I do like this remix of Rebecca Ferguson's Backtrack. It really brings out the unusual quality of her voice. (If you prefer a 60s sound to "hi-nrg" dance then you might like the original better.)

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Some short thoughts I had about some things

Here are my thoughts on working for the Met Office:
1) It is clear that from now on all people I meet outside the Met Office will hold me personally responsible for the accuracy or in- of all weather forecasts, and possibly for bad weather in general.
2) I like to talk about the weather -- I don't think it's dull, since it's what we live in -- and that's a big part of my small talk, such as it is. But if I say, "Good morning, isn't it a beautiful day?" to someone when I get into the office, does that count as talking shop?
3) Blimey the systems are complicated! I think I ought to be able to handle them eventually but it's going to take a while to get any sort of grip. My current logic is that they gave me the job, so I can probably do it, and if I can't then that's their fault for misassessing me.
4) I will probably post some Met Office videos here from time to time. They do some cool stuff.

Two thoughts about American politics:
1) Let's try to find it funny instead of deeply deeply depressing! Here are some binder reviews on Amazon. I like the one by the woman who can only fit 53% of herself into the binder.
2) Amanda Palmer started an interesting thing about health insurance. I look forward to reading the results. I could never live in America. I would get cancer, go bankrupt, and die -- having insurance doesn't stop you having to pay. Getting cancer and dying would be bad enough, but the bankruptcy and possible dragging down of family with me would make the whole thing significantly worse.

Here are two thought about the X-Factor:
1) Nicole seems to have joined Louis on whatever substance it is he uses to get through the live shows. But I'm disappointed that she didn't actually say "Two words: Bour-geois" to Rylan because that seemed like an interesting sort of compliment to me. But twitter says she said "Gour-geois" e.g. gorgeous, which is less interesting though maybe a tad more crazy.
2) Some cabaret people, led by Frisky and Mannish, did a riposte to Gary Barlow's pejorative use of the term. It's good but goes on a bit long.

One last thought:
I do like this remix of Taylor Swift's We Are Never Ever Ever Getting Back Together

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Violent chicken death

Any possibility that I was about to get sentimental about the countryside has been effectively prevented by the sight that met my eyes when I opened my curtains this morning: a trail of white feathers across the paddock; dark patches on the grass; and my father walking back from the far end by the trees dragging a spade. A fox got the chickens in the night, the alpacas having been moved into another field. I feel a bit sad about this, though we did know it was likely to happen some day. They were amiable chickens.

We look after my nephew tomorrow. He is very likely to notice that they are gone because checking for eggs is one of his favourite things, and I am interested to see how my mother will handle this. She has a very strong objection to lying of any sort. I don't think I ever did any wrong as a child that wasn't eclipsed many times in her eyes if I lied about it. I told him my rat died when she died peacefully of old age; we told him when the black hen died, also of old age. I think he could cope with the idea that a fox ate the chickens, perhaps better as a nearly-four-year-old than he will as a seven- or eight-year-old. Nonetheless something in me shrinks from the idea of telling him, and I don't know how his parents would react.

Saturday, 6 October 2012

Next things

I start my new job at the Met Office a week on Monday, which is an excellent thing. I'm going to be one of their computer programmers. Among a number of minor but pleasant perks is that their on-site cafe is called the Iso Bar. I feel good about this.

(In London even though Masters Super Fish was maybe better I used to buy my pie and chips from the Fishcotheque. If you find yourself at Waterloo station I recommend it. It's very close, it does Pukka Pies (don't compromise!) and when I ask for extra salt and vinegar they give me extra salt and vinegar. And can you argue with a steak and kidney pie and chips for £3.70? No you cannot.)

Although I will probably be a part-time Anglo-Saxonist it also occurred to me the other day that I don't have to at all. I could take up any hobby I want to, like a normal person. And if I do do some Anglo-Saxonning there is no pressure on me to publish it! (I know an excellent scholar who never publishes anything if he can help it, his paid job being something quite different.) So I'll see how that goes. I would like to spend some time learning how to make linocuts/woodcuts, and doing some more writing.

I'll be living with my parents again until I can sort out a move into Exeter. I've had enough of moving recently, and I have unopened boxes which I packed up in November 2007, but hopefully after that move I can settle down for a while. Because I lived with my parents for a bit before the M.Sc. I have been very quick to remember their annoying habits, which are a) squabbling b) not wrapping things they put in the fridge c) saying they're on a diet and not realising that this makes certain foods unwise. My mother was really upset when I told her that pies are unhealthy, and she didn't believe me until she'd checked the side of a box. (She claims never to have heard the expression "Who ate all the pies?".) They seem to consider clotted cream a staple, and the first night I was here my mother told me about the healthy eating plan and then told me that for dinner we were going to eat up all the Tesco's sausage rolls, mini pork pies, and scotch eggs left over from the harvest festival lunch. But these things are endearing really. And I have my beautiful view back, complete with alpacas, chickens, buzzards, housemartins on the telephone wires getting ready to leave for Africa, and in the distance Culmstock beacon just in case someone sights the Spanish Armada.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012


I have just found out about a thing called USB OTG or USB on-the-go. USB connections use the concept of "master" and "slave". Suppose you plug a printer into a computer; the computer is the host and the printer is the attached device, controlled by the computer. Or I might plug my Nexus 7 tablet into my computer, and again the computer is in charge. But with USB OTG something that's usually a "slave", like a phone or my Nexus 7 tablet, can become a "master" or host for another USB device. This would usually be either an input device, like a keyboard, or a storage device, like a USB pen or an SD card in a USB reader.

The upshot of this is that with a USB OTG cable, which cost me about £1.50 off of amazon, I was able yesterday to plug an old USB keyboard into my Nexus tablet and type away merrily with no setup whatsoever. As I understand it the Nexus 7 automatically supports USB OTG for keyboard and mouse. In order to use a USB pen drive I had to download an app. I downloaded this free picture viewer app by Homesoft, and it worked well, so I think I will buy this app which allows you to use other forms of media. You can't write to the USB storage device, only read from it.* Also I haven't tested how well it works with material left in situ on the USB device. Nonetheless this is a very cheap solution to one criticism levelled at the Nexus 7, that it has limited storage and you might not be able to fit onto it all the films you wanted to watch on holiday, for example.** I have all my work ever on a 500Gb portable hard drive, and depending on how easy it is to navigate this could be a much better solution than trying to get it all into the cloud and then relying on having internet access wherever I go. Hurray!

* But you can write to a USB device using an OTG cable from the Nexus 7 if you root it, something I don't really want to do.

** Charlie Stross has a more expensive but more interesting solution.

Monday, 1 October 2012

I like this video for Gangnam Style with all the music taken out. The dancing bits and horsey bits are the best.

If you've seen the original you will probably especially appreciate it.

Friday, 28 September 2012

Leighton House

Open House weekend in London is one of those things I find easier to like in theory than in practice. Lots of cool buildings are open, some of which you can't usually get into, but you have to queue up for the best places, or book long in advance, or enter your name into a ballot. I wasn't successful in the ballots I had entered so I only went to one place, Leighton House in Kensington, which I wanted to visit anyway.

Leighton House was built by Frederic Lord Leighton, the nineteenth-century painter. Apparently he amassed a huge varied collection of art objects, but after his death it wasn't possible to keep them all together. The contents of the house now were put together quite recently, with the exception of the Narcissus Room. This is a high square room with a little square pool and fountain in the middle of the floor. It's set all around with a collection of seventeenth-century decorated tiles from Damascus; apparently Leighton showed the tiles to a friend who was an architect, who gave him the idea of building a place to put them in. Some of the tiles are skilled copies to complete the pattern, but most are original, and the one room constitutes an important British collection of Islamic ceramic art. High up in the walls it has bright glass windows also from Damascus. There's also a gorgeous mosaic frieze designed by Leighton but made for him in Venice with three different colours of gold, and the tiles set out of alignment so it sparkles. Actually gorgeous is the word for the whole room. The rest of the house is less remarkable but quite likeable, and there's a lovely garden. When I went there was an exhibition of pre-Raphaelite paintings, which was pleasant enough.

It's open all the time but with a charge, and it might be nicer to go when it's less busy than Open House weekend. But because of the event there was an expert there who explained to me why there was no Lord Leighton in the Tate Britain exhibition. Apparently although Leighton got on with the Brotherhood in a rivals sort of way he had a very different background and ethos. When he first exhibited at the Royal Academy summer exhibition the critics specifically lauded him as a young painter who wasn't involved in the newfangled pre-Raphaelite thing. But to me his work looks quite similar to theirs.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

British Museum part 2: Shakespeare

The second exhibition which I saw at the BM was "Shakespeare: Staging the World". I wasn't hugely attracted by it but I could get in for free, so I thought it was worth a try. (It's their current big charging exhibition.)

The first two things I encountered set the tone for the whole. There's a long corridor to get in, with recorded noise of people talking -- I think I'd read or heard somewhere that this was a deliberate attempt to recreate the hubbub of a theatre before curtain-up. Then the first actual object I saw was a clock, annotated with this quotation:
The clock struck 9 when I did send the nurse -- Romeo and Juliet.
Apparently Shakespeare uses clocks to indicate urgency or the passing of time.

There's actually something quite merry about the attempts to shoe-horn in sort-of relevant Shakespeare quotations all over the place, or at least to get the word "theatrical" into the label. The contemporary objects from Shakespeare's world are the best bit of the exhibition. I particularly liked the maps and prospects, including some interesting tapestry maps. There are rooms which deal with the main settings of Shakespeare's plays -- the medieval past, the classical world, and Venice -- but these weren't quite as successful for me. By far the most interesting object is the Robben Island Bible, a complete works of Shakespeare smuggled into the South African prison, disguised as a Hindu text, and signed by many political prisoners including Nelson Mandela.

But I don't think I did the exhibition justice at all, for one simple reason -- it was really really noisy. Each room has one or two looped recordings of actors doing some Shakespeare. The excerpts are short and the actors act away prettily heartily, plus I'm not a huge fan of the art of Thespis anyway. By the time I had looked at one item in a room the chances were that I was already becoming irritated by the repetition of the same piece of material nearby, and also unable not to hear the recordings from the last room and the next one. This drove me round the exhibition at a great speed and made me tetchy. (Except that I love Harriet Walter and think she can do no wrong.)

Really the exhibition is not for me, anyway. It's for GCSE students to go to (not for pleasure); it's for people who visit perhaps from a long way away. It's part of the 2012 Arts Festival and was presumably deliberately chosen as a topic that might be interesting to a large number of visitors from all over the world. If I went to China, for example, I would love to see an exhibition like this about some major Chinese author.

British Museum part 1: Horses

I love the British Museum. I love walking towards it, I love the airy courtyard, I love the objects and the way there always seems to be a corner I haven't discovered yet. I went to look at two exhibitions there.

The Horse exhibition is free but nearly over. It starts with some really lovely Mesopotamian objects, some showing mules, like the Royal Standard of Ur. There are also finely-carved Mesopotamian reliefs showing the horses of the king's lion-hunting chariots. (The Assyrian lion hunts, like this one, are one of my favourite bits of the BM, just off the busy Egyptian statuary galleries.) The next room deals with early Arabic horses and horses in Islam. It has some truly beautiful miniatures, some of the best things in the exhibition. There's also a Rembrandt copy of a Mughal miniature now in the Bodleian.

It was at around this point that I started thinking the selection of objects perhaps a little odd. The next room is about the Arabian horse, and the final rooms about how the Thoroughbreds of modern racing all trace their ancestry to the three foundation stallions brought to England from the Middle East. There's not a mention of other breeds, like the native British horses, of the many other types of horse used for work and competition. The exhibition is supposed to have been put on as a tribute to the Queen's Jubilee year, but the Queen's involvement in equestrianism does go a lot further than just racing. One of the things I do like about the royal family is that they are very good with horses. It's true that they are privileged to have the opportunity since horses are expensive animals -- though I think in Devon it would be cheaper for me to keep a horse than a car -- but these are still really tough things to do, and a horse doesn't know you're royal. Eventing, for example, is frankly terrifying, and the Duke of Edinburgh was still competitively driving Fell ponies in his 80s. (I assume he's stopped now.)

Anyway, the exhibition is sponsored by Saudi Arabian institutions and is in conjunction with the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities. This explains why there are quite so many Korans in it, I suppose -- it's essentially a Saudi oil prince's idea of the horse. And if I had paid more attention I would have noticed that it's entitled "The Horse: from Arabia to Royal Ascot". It's a pretty fair description without the colon. It's free so worth popping into for the Mughal miniatures, but otherwise it was very disappointing, essentially highlighting one particular horse cliche, the sport of princes thing -- the same exhibition could have been laid on in the eighteenth century more or less.

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Bronze at the Royal Academy

If the Tate likes to have a thesis for its exhibitions, the Royal Academy's thesis for its shows seems to be "Look at all these things!" They have a show at the moment which is about looking at things made of Bronze. And because it's at the Royal Academy it's rather larger than is sensible. If my civilised aunt hadn't come to London specially to see it (and bought me a ticket) I might not have bothered to go. But I'm very glad I did because some of the things made of bronze are really worth looking at.

There's no attempt at all to put the objects into any sort of historical, cultural, or technical groups, and no sense that you're supposed to learn anything from it, or have any response more intellectual than the occasional "ooh, look at that!" The rooms are called simply "Animals" or "Objects". This makes the show oddly restful, and helps with the sheer quantity of things on display. There isn't even a definition of what bronze is, as opposed to, say, brass -- I think they were using it as a catch-all term for brownish metal alloys. There is a room that tells you about different bronze-casting techniques, with videos and displays of the same object at various stages, which was very interesting indeed. But this was not laid on heavily, and isn't referenced in other parts of the show. I overheard some people who I think were from the RA talking about trying to get people to look at the objects not the labels. I have mixed feelings about this approach, and I would probably have found it frustrating if it had been a show where I felt there was something available to be learnt and taken away. But just relaxing and looking at nice things is actually probably a good discipline for someone like me who finds it hard to appreciate images without the help of words.

The things I particularly liked were: an etiolated 2nd-century BC Etruscan figure which I thought at first was a Giacommetti (I found later that it inspired him); some beautiful fifteenth-century weeping figures from the tomb of Isabella of Bourbon, Duchess of Burgundy; the African bronzes from Nigeria, especially the leopards; and some Greek and Roman bronzes, especially a surprisingly art-deco style Roman candelabra in the form of a bare-branched tree. There were some interesting modern pieces too, including one of Louise Bourgeois's spiders, and forms by Brancusi and Picasso.

I don't know if it counts as a plus or minus point for a show when you find yourself taking little notes about things to google when you get home. Things I found out later included: the definition of bronze as opposed to brass (they're both copper alloys but bronze has more tin and brass more zinc); who exactly Isabella of Bourbon was (she was the wife of the last Duke of Burgundy, Charles the Bold, and mother of poor old Mary of Burgundy); what the inscription is on the Asante ewer (a little moralistic poem); where Luristan is (part of modern-day Iran); whether Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden was the father of the excellent Queen Christina (he was). I would be interested to know whether the curators would feel good about provoking me to further enquiry or bad about not having told me what I wanted to know. They may have assumed I would have a smart phone, though I don't know how easy it would be to use one in there since photographs and phone calls are not allowed. Or they might feel disappointed in me, with my failure simply to look at all the lovely bronze things.

Monday, 24 September 2012

London Guildhall Art Gallery and Amphitheatre

The London Guildhall is in the middle of London City proper, and I took the Waterloo and City line to get to it, which was mildly exciting because I think that's the only tube line I'd never used. I went mostly to see a temporary exhibition, but there is an Art Gallery with a permanent display, and underneath you can see the ruins of London's Roman Amphitheatre.

The exhibition was called "Butcher, Baker, Candlestick Maker: 850 Years of London Livery Company Treasures". I've come across the Skinners and Girdlers at Corpus feasts, wearing their skins or girdles as appropriate, and exuding the confidence of members of a very very old Rotary club. There are surviving gild documents from Anglo-Saxon England, mostly involving clubbing together to brew beer and bury their dead, and perhaps with extras like an agreed donation to anyone who set out on a pilgrimage to Rome. The surviving guilds are later, but they are mostly very rich by dint of sheer long-term existence.

The exhibition was very likeable and interesting. The oldest thing was a charter of Henry II from 1155 to the Weavers, and there were lots of excellent fifteenth- and sixteenth-century illuminated manuscripts of guild membership and such-like. But there was also a general mixture of old and new objects that reminded me of Corpus's collections of silver. There's something amiable about having a seventeenth-century coffee pot with pineapples on it next to an early twenty-first ewer incorporating the structure of DNA. There were lots of small likeable things -- the Innholders have a "Sweete Salt", given by Anne Sweete in 1614, and the gloves from the coronation of Elizabeth I and Elizabeth II were shown side by side. A Holbein of Henry VIII giving a charter to the Barber--Surgeons is still owned by the Royal College of Physicians. Guilds are still being set up today -- the list of 108 full guilds starts with the Mercers, the Grocers, the Drapers, and the Fishmongers, and ends with the Management Consultants, the International Bankers, the Tax Advisors, and the Security Professionals.

The Art Gallery and Amphitheatre were interesting to see, but I'm not sure they would have supported a special trip very well. The Art collections are mostly nineteenth-century society or sentimental paintings, inoffensive but unsubstantial. There are some interesting pictures of London through the last few hundred years, and a lot of paintings of pageants. The Amphitheatre is down in the basement. Some of the wooden drainage system survives, and parts of the gateway at the entrance. Obviously you need a bit of an imagination to make much of it, but all the stairs you go down make a dramatic point about how London has risen, and outside a large oval set into the paving traces its extent. I've seen lots of bigger amphitheatres abroad -- a reminder that London was only the capital of a very far province.

As a visitor attraction I would recommend going either when there's an interesting exhibition on or when you're in the area already. Or, you could take a youth on an educational visit to the amphitheatre. When I was young people were constantly dragging me to see hypocausts, so it might at least make a change from that.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Pre-Raphaelites at Tate Britain

Tate Britain currently has an exhibition about the pre-Raphaelites. It's subtitled "Victorian Avant-Garde" because the Tate is not the sort of place that feels comfortable having pretty pictures up without a thesis. So the thesis, such as it is, is that they were pretty shocking in their day, and I suppose it does manage to convey this a bit. What I mostly came away with was a sense that their works were tremendously diverse, and that after their initial idea about painting nature I would find it hard to define them in any way.

I'm not a huge fan of the Pre-Raphaelites in general. Like with the Impressionists, I adored them when I was about fifteen, and then felt that I had grown out of them. (I made an attempt recently to like the Impressionists again, and I realised that I do really like their work on the rare occasions when they're not painting flowers or pretty ladies.) Pictures of dense-haired women holding pomegranates leave me rather cold. But there were enough interesting or unexpected things in this exhibition to make me glad I went.

I particularly liked two early works by John Everett Millais, which seem to show a sense of humour -- I do not associate the Pre-Raphaelites with a sense of humour. A brilliant pen and ink drawing entitled "The Disentombment of Queen Matilda" which is viewable on the Tate site here; and a scene from the story of Isabella and her pot of Basil, which is from the Walker Gallery in Liverpool and viewable small-size here. It's not just the nasty brother's powerful kick at the dog, and the mild way Lorenzo stoops as, in his pre-composted state, he shares an orange with Isabella, but the excellent serried rows of prim eaters behind them. Millais was only 19 when he did both of these, and they have an interesting energy.

Their religious paintings are a bit more inadvertently funny. I really like Millais' Christ in the House of his Parents, which upset people like Ruskin at the time because it showed a working carpenter's family, but which seems quite innocuous now, even rather kow-towing (as I suspect The Life of Brian will to everyone in a hundred years' time). In it Mary is alarmed because the child Jesus has hurt his palm -- it's prefiguration, you see. Once you've seen several of these sorts of pictures -- a bare-chested teenage Jesus stretches his arms in the middle of his work while Mary reacts in horror to his crucifixion-like shadow on the wall, Jesus fetches firewood to his house while Mary trembles at the two that have fallen down to form a cross -- it's hard not to presume that in the Pre-Raphaelites' mind poor Mary was a nervous wreck constantly starting at every possible prefiguration of the crucifixion. Their sort of piety is the thing that's most hard to enjoy about the Pre-Raphaelites.

William Holman Hunt was certainly the worst culprit. His Light of the World, showing Jesus with a lantern at twilight knocking at an overgrown door in a significant manner, was hugely popular at the time. One of the three versions he painted actually travelled all over the world as a sort of moral booster for the Empire. My mother had a copy on her wall as a child (I saved it for sentiment's sake when she tried to throw it away recently) and there's a print in a dusty corner of the vestry at my parents' church. It's no longer easy to like. Nor is the other famous Holman Hunt, the Scapegoat, showing the poor goat of the Day of Atonement in the desert, fainting and surrounded by the bones of its predecessors. But I had never before come across his Triumph of the Innocents, a remarkably crazy version of the Flight Into Egypt. This contains the traditional elements -- Mary and the infant Jesus flee on a donkey led by Joseph. But surrounding them are strange glowing cherub figures representing the innocents whose massacre by Herod they were fleeing. The cherubs glow with wierd ectoplasm, throw flowers, and dance on top of the water of a stream. Their wounds are healed though their clothes are still slashed. Even odder, they bring with them bubbles, some of them quite large, which apparently represent pious thoughts by the people of the time. This is High Victorian sensibility at its most unconsciously insane. There's an even more lurid version in the Walker. Ruskin thought it 'the greatest religious painting of our time'. (Robertson Davies has some interesting things to say about the power of bad religious art in his Cornish Trilogy.)

There were some other interesting paintings -- I really liked this Burne-Jones now in Stuttgart, where wing-footed Perseus fights a twisting sea-monster to free Andromeda. But by far the most interesting room was the William Morris room, with its different media. There was a fantastic bed designed and embroidered by his daughter May Morris. A tapestry whose design was commissioned by a wealthy merchant took his wife and daughter eight years to complete. There's a gorgeous manuscript copy of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, written by William Morris and decorated by him, Burne-Jones, and Murray Fairfax. There were some amazing tapestries of the Grail legend. It's the sort of thing that's hideous when badly done by Past Times, but I could have looked at these originals for hours. There's also a great wardrobe painted by Burne-Jones with pictures from the Prioress' Tale.

One thing that did puzzle me at the time was that I thought there were other figures who were part of the whole Pre-Raphaelite thing, particularly Frederic Lord Leighton of Flaming June fame. I did sort this out later, but I will explain in another post since this one is already long enough...

A few links

Ben Goldacre's explanation of how pharmaceutical companies can manipulate research data is very important.

Sarah Silverman makes a persuasive case for American grandmothers getting guns. Blimey America is troubled. I suppose the UK is too.

Wondering how to use the telephone? This advice from 1917 is mostly sound. My father in particular could use the page titled "Concentrate while telephoning". Once he got distracted before he had even finished saying "Hello Rebecca" and just sort of trailed off into silence. I think he'd seen a bird.

Also here is an online mind-mapping tool which I keep meaning to try. I'd be interested in comments if anyone does use it. I use MindManager but the problem with paid-for software is that you have to reinstall it and find all the license keys etc every time you wipe or upgrade your computer.

Saturday, 22 September 2012

One Man, Two Guv'nors

Continuing the cultural theme I went to see One Man, Two Guv'nors at the Haymarket, a modern adaptation of an eighteenth-century play by Goldoni, Arlecchino servitore di due padroni. It was very funny in a silly way, with lots of falling over and misunderstandings. It was also quite interesting because I don't really know much about Commedia dell'Arte, and it wore its classical origins very lightly. It's set in 60s Brighton, and had good-humoured skiffle-style songs between the scenes.

But I do find faked audience interaction very annoying, and also when part of the play is to pretend that something has gone wrong with the play -- it's just too tiresomely meta. It also feels like a cheap trick to get audience sympathy -- the less suspicious, older people in the more expensive seats will clap twice as hard for what they think is an embarrassed audience member hauled on stage, and laugh twice as much at what they think is a clever improvised riposte by an actor under pressure. I think most of the audience spent the interval trying to entangle what if anything had been real and what staged. But I think most of them didn't really mind, and the people I was with weren't bothered, so it's probably just me. Judging from this FT review of the Broadway production, which says "the improv is inspired" but mentions something which also happened in the performance I was at, there's probably not really much improv as such.

But then I am not very sympathetic to theatre as an art form any more, and this was by far the least irritating and most enjoyable theatrical production I have been to in many years. I did laugh loads at the time, and my issues with it were mostly retrospective.

Tomb Treasures of Han China, The Fitzwilliam

I'm leaving London at the end of the month, so I've been treating my last fortnight here as a holiday, trying to catch up with people and see some of the things I didn't have the time or energy to do over the course of the year. I was going to blog about cultural things in one big post, but then I thought it would be hideously long, so instead I shall do separate posts about each thing.

The first thing is actually in Cambridge not London, the current exhibition of Chinese tomb goods, mostly from the 2nd century BC, at the Fitzwilliam Museum. The Fitzwilliam Museum is my favourite free-exhibition place now that the British Library charges. (The National Gallery does good free exhibitions too, but small ones.) They tend to get a good balance between spectacle and content too.

I went round with a friend and we agreed how interestingly disconcerting it is to see objects from a culture where neither of us have any sense of time-frames and stylistic changes -- I kept being startled to remember how very old the objects are. There are some really lovely small things, like the gold beasts on the poster, and some carved jade, and disturbing all-over jade burial suits. The terracotta figurines of servants and officials are also very pleasing in their quiet elegance, and for the mulish expressions of the horses. There are also some truly beautiful figures of long-sleeved dancers. I think that dancing with long sleeves or "water sleeves" is a very old Chinese art but I only really know about it from the film "The House of Flying Daggers" and from a google search when I got back. Something to point out that that's why the figures had such extended arms would have been good. (I assume that is why -- I don't know for sure.) I also found out from the website when I got back that I'd missed the exhibition's narrative and that the treasures were from rival kingdoms -- but I'd rather have learnt about the dancing than the politics anyway. But these are mostly little quibbles. Apart from suffering a little from the perennial problem of lighting where you cast a shadow on what you're looking at, it's nicely laid out and a good size, and I really enjoyed it.

The Fitzwilliam also has about the most refined tea room I know, where you can get aromatic rosebud tea made from real rosebuds.

Here's some water sleeve dancing I found on YouTube.

Friday, 21 September 2012

Some pig

Pig saves goat:

Dog feeds lamb.

Ralph Lauren hires plus-size model -- she's 6 ft 2 and a size 12.

Animals are coming off better in today's news. Pick up your game, humanity!

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Jamaican dancehall

Half of Major Lazer is Diplo, who is most famous for working with M.I.A., and you can hear that in this track although the vocal is softer:

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Two thoughts and an unrelated video

Thought 1: I think being a young unestablished academic in Cambridge is most like being in an abusive relationship in the way it persuades you that any troubles or sufferings you have are your own deserved fault. (Furthermore sometimes not even your fault because of things you have done or chosen, but because of what you are, some quality intrinsic to yourself.) The middle aged men tell you that something always turns up for the good people -- but they're not an imaginative bunch and it's hard to believe that their assessment of someone as good is completely unrelated to whether something turned up for them. Now I have distance it seems odd how completely I bought into it all. Of course I shouldn't be too melodramatic -- obviously no one ever actually beat me up, and I was brought up in an old-school British way so that I feel that an occasional severe pruning of the self-esteem is probably good for me. (If anything this year might have been an over-corrective; I'm feeling quite smug right now.)

Thought 2: I do like how lyric videos have become the standard way to make some sort of video for a new song before the full-on big-budget video comes out. I haven't watched any pop TV recently so I don't know whether they play the lyric video or whether they still say "the song at number 8 doesn't have a video yet so here instead is a new release by X". It must be a huge boon for graphic designers. The first one I remember seeing was for Cee Lo Green's F*** You. I think in that case it was a way of letting the song loose to see if people liked it, and when it went viral they made a full video with the scansion-compromised clean version. This one's good (I don't get all the references though by a long way):

Unrelated video: Robbie William's new song. That's Kaya Scodelario, again.

Monday, 10 September 2012

A pastor's letter about the church and abuse

I find this letter very interesting. It's from the pastor of a full-on every-word-of-the-Bible church in America, admitting a specific way in which they have got things wrong.

I have a few friends (non-Christians) who reproach me with what they see as my unBiblical views. They say they have more respect for the Bible-thumpers who condemn homosexuality for a phrase in Leviticus and women's ministry for a phrase of St Paul. They think all my explanations are just a fudge, a weaseling out of the details of what I profess to believe. I can sympathise with their desire for the absolute; but I also find this attitude thumpingly naive -- like Bertrand Russell's idea that children left to themselves are sweetness and light, or those teenagers who think sex is a physical act with effects only on the physical plane.* I believe that the Bible is the word of God, but the word of God refracted through humanity. As light gets distorted by water or scattered by dust, or coloured by a shadow or a by a puddle of oil, so human mediation distorts truth. It is an obvious folly to concentrate attention on the tone, the texture of the glass's effect and not to seek to get at the pure light behind it.**

The great Methodist campaigners against slavery knew this. I could pick out phrases in the Bible to suggest another attitude -- "Slaves obey your masters" said St Paul -- but they knew that slavery was intensely transgressive of a deeper Biblical message, and they acted on that. The pastor of this church has discovered for himself how an attention to a literal interpretation of sentences can impair attention to the spirit. I'm sorry that people suffered for this to happen, but I'm glad he wasn't too proud to learn the lesson.

* Excellent XKCD cartoon.

** This isn't my metaphor, it's George Herbert's:
A man that looks on glasse,
On it may stay his eye;
Or if he pleaseth, through it passe,
And then the heav’n espie.***

*** Interestingly my Granny was recommended something very similar, in fact an alternation between the two, to improve the strength of her eye muscles.

Thursday, 6 September 2012


It's a shame it's so difficult to let go of pole-dancing's sleazy associations and just appreciate it as an art form. I'm not sure the high-heels and underwear outfits are really any worse than the things ballet dancers wear, and there's a little-girl-ishness about ballet which I find more offensive by far. Anyway, the dancers in this video are pretty amazing, and I really like the song. The video is not actually rude but you might still feel a bit embarrassed if someone saw you watching it at work. (As I watched it just now it came with an advert for a Thomas the Tank Engine DVD which does seem a bit inappropriate.)

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Oh dear

This young man is feeling oppressed by social constructs of gender.

Saturday, 1 September 2012

Have I mentioned that I heart the Pet Shop Boys?

I love that
a) their next single includes the word "context" and has seem pretty good lyrics about death
b) Chris Lowe wanted to call their new slower album "Pet Shop Boys Infirm"
c) the new album apparently includes a song based on some Handel
d) they think Facebook is sinister and horrible
e) the (not that great) single Winner wasn't written about the Olympics at all but about Eurovision
(b c d and e are from this interview)

Saturday, 25 August 2012

Monkey therapists

My individual project for the M.Sc. is not something I came up with myself, but something I was allocated. One of the things it involves is reading up on Attachment Theory, which makes me a bit sad. Apparently babies are born with the part of the brain which deals with terror in place, but without the bit of the brain which you use when you calm down. They need adults around to act as that part of the brain for them, until they're old enough to grow that bit for themselves. (I think that's when they're around two years old.) A small child that doesn't have interactions with a nice sensible adult brain won't be able to grow that part of their brain properly. They have missed out on something almost as important as food.

It's interesting stuff. I think we're all used to the idea of the brain as a huge set of connections between neurons. I wasn't aware before of the idea of the brain as only one brain among many, only able to develop its own internal connections through its interactions with other external brains. On the one hand it's quite cheering because there seems to be a general anxiety around about parenthood, and all the parents I know are succeeding hugely in ways they may not even be aware of. On the other hand learning about it is depressing because it involves learning about what happens when it goes wrong. This means lots of sad stories of terrible things happening to toddlers so that they grow up without a part of their brain, and a certain amount of systematic cruelty to baby monkeys to see how they cope with it. They did experiments where they gave baby monkeys all the food etc that they needed but replaced their mothers with stuffed toys. Said monkeys, when introduced to other monkeys, could not cope at all, and acted in ways described as "autistic". Poor monkeys. There was another interesting experiment where they gave the "autistic" young adult monkeys other monkeys as therapists. The monkey therapists were half the age of the damaged monkeys, and their incessant demanding need for social interaction was able to break through the damaged monkeys' isolation and socialise them, so that they were all later able to join monkey society together. Which is something, I suppose. Because the human brain stays changeable for much longer than people used to think -- you can make significant new pathways even late in life -- those who missed out as toddlers could probably be helped by carefully directed therapies.

(I often wonder, what does it do to the development of the brains of the people who do this to monkeys? The discovery of long-term neuroplasticity means that it could quite feasibly alter the adult brain. I don't know if anyone's studied the neuroscientific and psychological effects of cruelty to animals being part of your job. I'd have though it could be as bad as second-hand smoke.)

The literature on the subject is a little annoying because of its tendency to see this as the entire deal. It may be true that you can induce autistic-like behaviour in a child just by how you treat it -- thankfully no one has tried this but they assume they can because of their afore-mentioned successes with monkeys -- but that doesn't change the fact that there are children out there who have actual autism. It certainly doesn't mean their parents don't play with them, and it does seem to have a large genetic component. And they're very sexist -- everything is mother this, mother that, and I read a formal interview where one of them was asked about this and he implied that when a father looks after a baby the father has a different emotional gender from his physical one. Attachment theory has been used as another stick to beat women around the head with, by people who think they should stay home and gurgle at their babies instead of going out to work. It's not just unfair on the mothers, it's unfair on fathers and men in general too. My brother is certainly part of his small children's emotional framework, and when my dad (who is a softy) spends ages pulling faces at his little grand-daughter and bouncing her on his knee I'm sure that's helping her brain to develop.

While I'm on depressing subjects I recently read a thing (as part of a book review in the Literary Review) which said that the Japanese were already gearing up to surrender before the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It said that this was partly because the terrible conventional bombing campaigns were having a massive effect, but also because the Red Army was invading Manchuria, and the Japanese knew they couldn't face the military power of enormous Russia. It said that the Americans knew this and that the point of dropping the bombs was not to force a surrender which was already on its way, but to hasten the surrender to limit the inevitable land gains which the Soviets were about to make in the Far East. In this reading the "shorten the war by five years and save innumerable lives" justification was knowing bullshit and the real reason was about the post-war political map. Ouch ouch ouch. Part of me wants to follow this up and see what the evidence is for and against, while part of me dreads doing that.

Friday, 17 August 2012

Relevance in popular culture

I don't have a lot in common with and I'm OK with that, but it looks like I might be inadvertently ahead of a trend (again!). Apparently next year is going to college to study computer science. Here is a nicely-verbed quote from the popjustice website:
“When I am 57 I still want to be relevant in popular culture,” he threatened, “and the way to be relevant within popular culture in the future is writing code.”

I like ZeFrank and this job interview video is him at his best, with his wierd combination of funny and intensely serious:

You probably already saw this video of excellent dancing. Now here is another by the same man, to the good sort of dubstep.

This song is brilliant. I don't know why it's called Peanut Butter because it seems to be just a love song, unless it's a love song to peanut butter. I'm not a big fan of peanut butter myself. I like the taste but somehow I never want to eat it. Still a good song though:
Note that you can download it for free (click where it says "download").

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Some things!

I just had some good news which I won't mention because it's not 100% definite. So here are some good things!

1. Radical tea towels! By the time you read this I will probably have bought this March of the Women tote bag.

2. This story of an 18-year-old Somalian refugee bought tears to my eyes in both a bad and a good way.

3. My small nephew is only three so he doesn't enunciate very clearly. At the moment he seems to be confused about the difference between an adventure and a bench. "Let's go on a benchure!" he'll say when in the park, and confound his parents by then running up to and sitting down on a bench. My brother feels a bit guilty that they're clearly not providing him with a very adventurous life. Also when we play "football" and he gets the ball in the right place he shouts "Gold!". I love my nephew. And my eight-month-old niece is getting fun too. She likes to pick things up and then drop them. Then she looks at you with this excellent expression of wonder and joy as if to say "that was both awesome and hilarious!".

4. If you want to upgrade your laptop's memory Crucial have a tool that lets you select its manufacturer and model and then shows you the right things to buy and a video to help you do it. I'm going to try upgrading mine to 8Gb. (Thanks Adrian for the link.)

Sunday, 12 August 2012


I have a sense of the American literary scene (or more likely one particularly vocal aspect of it) because I subscribe to various literary blogs, including the Millions, which sometimes prefaces its longer blog entries with as many as three epigraphs. The McSweeney's and Dave Eggers lot are quite ascendant. And because I like it when things are very much themselves, without fear of parody, it made me happy when I saw that the latest issue of the Believer has an actual audio cassette taped to its front cover. Apparently it has music on it which is exclusively available in audio cassette form. But Beck has gone one step further by only releasing his latest album as sheet music, in, where else, McSweeney's.

It includes ukelele notation, obviously.

On the other side of things enthusiastic Americans get up to, this project to make a 3D motion sensor from tin foil and cardboard (and also an Arduino board, some crocodile clips, and free software) is pretty cool.

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Dansk höspitalitet

I made up the word "höspitalitet", sorry. But I did go to the Danish Olympic hospitality house at St Katharine's Docks. They had one of the Roskilde museum reconstructed Viking ships there, a little one called the Helge Ask. This was just a coastal defence ship, not a full-on raiding vessel, but it's very nice anyway.
The Helge Ask
Putting up the sail
Taking the sail down

There were also Vikings fighting, which was great:

And a lego model of the Olympic park:

Well done the Danes.

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Pet Shop Boys yay!

The latest Pet Shop Boys single, Winner, is not that great. So it's lucky that popjustice exists to point out that its b-sides are much better ("Well the third Pet Shop Boys b-sides album is off to a good start"). There's a sad Beegees cover, a long atmospheric piece which I think is based on a poem I read as a kid, and this excellent song which they wrote for but did not give to Kylie, possibly because they realised that "I like the cut of your jib" is not a very Kylie lyric. Hurray!

(Is it just me or is the beginning a bit like that saucy Bloodhound Gang song?)

Monday, 6 August 2012

Snooker is not an Olympic sport

I'm not one for watching sport, with two exceptions. I used to watch a lot of snooker, because I find the combination of abstraction and seediness very appealing. I also had a big crush on Stephen Hendry as a teenager -- I think it was his shyness, spottiness and firm grasp of geometry that did it for me. Also I watch showjumping when it's on, but I do find it a little stressful as well as beautiful because of the partnership aspect.

So I have watched almost none of the Olympics, even though unlikely people like my mother have been finding themselves glued to the TV. Still I'm quite enjoying them. I thought London would be a nightmare but it's actually quite pleasant. There's a bit of a party atmosphere, with tube train drivers announcing medal results as they come through, and visitors wandering around in Olympic uniforms of various countries, as well as lots of people carrying children waving British flags. Yesterday I met up with my friend Laura who is one of the Olympic volunteers. She's come down from Manchester to spend her fortnight's summer holiday sleeping on a friend's sofa and getting up ridiculously early to steward people through security at the Olympic park. We went to St Paul's for evensong and then had a coffee. The marathon route was still closed to traffic, which had essentially turned the whole St Paul's area into a large pedestrian precinct, and the cafes, which in the City usually close at weekends, were open and bustling. The City is usually a depressing ghost town at the weekend. Then we walked across the Millenium Bridge down to Southwark. Lots of the visiting Olympic nations have hired large places and set up hospitality houses. I think they're mostly open to the public, and many of them are free. (The Londonist has a list.) We went to the Swiss one, right next to Southwark Cathedral. Perhaps immediately after Murray's surprise victory over Federer wasn't the most tactful time, but actually we had a tremendously polite conversation with a lovely Swiss lady, where we extolled the virtues of Federer as both tennis player and human being while she did the same about Murray. They had free biscuits and Lindt chocolate, as well a woman yodelling along to accordian music, and one of those massive long alpine horns. Also climbing, cheese rolling, and other Swiss 'sports'. Laura picked up a few free lapel pins, which apparently are collected by the Olympic volunteers, and have swapping value.

Anyway, in short: the Olympics are quite good fun. (A lot more interesting than my M.Sc. summer project...)

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Endearing things

I've realised that I find the Scissor Sisters very lovable. I'm not sure why since they're not particularly tame.

In that video I think Jake Shears is channelling a certain amount of Techno Viking. If you haven't see the Techno Viking you should watch it because it's one of the precious things of the internet:

Also here is a walrus making noises:

London isn't half as bad as people were expecting during the Games. There's quite a nice friendly atmosphere -- to the extent that people who stand on the left on the elevators who also have small children with them are generally being left alone by the London populace, even if it's busy. Forgiving someone for standing on the left on the elevator is the hardest thing for a Londoner to do. And we got silver in the eventing! Not only is it Mary King's sixth Olympics, she also recovered from a broken neck to compete again.

Saturday, 21 July 2012

Some interesting things

This review of Fifty Shades of Grey is truly excellent -- great use of .gifs, especially the last one.

This small girl guesses what books are about based on their cover. I particularly like her take on Jane Eyre.

When I was a kid I loved The Secret Life of Machines, and now mental floss has collected some of the episodes together. This sort of thing made me really frustrated about how boring Physics was at school -- it just seemed like there was no need for it not to be interesting. They're really worth revisiting. I love the bit in the fax machine one where they act out the handshake that starts a connection by saying things to each other like "Can you understand me if I speak this fast?" Something like that would actually have been very useful when I was learning about TCP connection for my networks exam. Also, generous cattage.

Monday, 16 July 2012

Programming query

How did anyone program anything ever before the internet? Maybe that's why my childhood programming was so ineffective. But my brother rewrote minesweeper from scratch for me when he was about 14 -- perhaps I should ask him.

Sunday, 15 July 2012


I've been finding all this rain a little tedious and inconvenient for obvious reasons, but I'd forgotten to think of it more broadly until I was talking to a farmer after church today. I wish I could have recorded what he said, Devon accent included. Basically the farmers are at their wits' end. His potatoes are rotting in their banked-up rows, with standing water as high as the base of the mounds -- expect potato prices to rise. And there will be almost no millable British wheat to make bread unless we get some proper sunshine. Every possible shed is full of livestock which should not be indoors at this time of year, and you can't take tractors out because they just sink in the muddy fields, even if you only half-load them, so lots of jobs are having to be done laboriously by hand. No hay can be made, though some people have managed to get some silage done. Today's St Swithun's day so let's hope the old saying doesn't hold this year. Right now it's actually rather pleasant here in Devon.

Friday, 13 July 2012

Some various things

I have a raspberry Pi. And I'm going to try to do this with it!
The raspberry Pi is beautiful.

The problem with London at the moment is that everywhere you go you are constantly bombarded with public service announcements suggesting that you avoid this place in the near future, especially at this particular time of day, and also places near to it or connected to it in any way. It's getting a bit tedious.

Andrew Prescott used to be a BL person and is now head of the Centre for Computing in the Humanities at KCL. Here he talks about this sort of thing. I only ever skim-read anything that's to do with the digital humanities because it tends to provoke my unhelpful thinking patterns, but I did notice this true sentence:
We try and suggest that we are collaborating in new ways, but at the end of the day a unit like that at King’s is simply an XML factory for projects led by other researchers.
Though possibly it would be more accurate to say that they are consultants for setting up and helping to run an external XML factory staffed by some poor research associate. Anyway, the situation is not healthy for "digital humanities" and it's not healthy for the humanities who are working with them.

I made my mother a cover for her new little Kindle. I suppose it's the fault of jpeg that in this picture the beautiful soft brown colour has been replaced by splotchy purple and grey-green:

I was oddly alert to gender stereotyping as a child so I'm glad I learnt to sew when I was too young to know that it was seen as a typically female thing to do. I don't sew well, but given that I spend so much of my life not managing to do things it's nice to make something simple from time to time. This is made from alpaca cloth woven out of our herd's fibre, and it's lined with unbleached cotton. The button I got off of etsy, from this bloke.

I'm trying to learn Ruby on Rails. It's making me feel stupid. It's very simple in many ways, but it involves information passing between lots of different files, and that's where I'm having trouble. One vital thing in programming is understanding a program's flow of control, which is simply which bits of code are executed in which order, and therefore understanding what all the variables are at any point in the program. Ruby is a programming language and Rails is a framework which sets up automatic groups of folders and customisable files which work together in a pre-specified manner. The idea is "convention over configuration", e.g. instead of having to tell a file where to find another file it just assumes it's in a particular place unless told otherwise. It makes it very quick to set up fast websites that deal with data. But if I ask it for a particular page via a browser, it looks first at a routes file, then at a controller file, then at a model file, then at a view file, then at a layout file, then at a template file, and then (probably using a stylesheet as well) it makes html out of all these things. I think I am being a bit slow, but it can be very hard to work out just where exactly you are when you work on a particular file, especially given that it might have just one line of code and make no sense out of context. (And also in Ruby you can pass blocks of code around as parameters to methods, and that's just wierd, frankly, though I can see that once I get used to it I'll use it all the time and think it's fantastic.)

Lastly, a friend of mine takes great photos, and I really love this one of part of Mill Road, Cambridge, at 6am.

Monday, 9 July 2012

Brief observation, query

I have been living alone for about eight hours and already I am talking to myself like a loon.

In other news, if anyone has an idea for a reasonably straightforward Android app I could make then I'd be interested to hear it. It doesn't need to be useful for more than 2 or 3 people in the whole world. I used to have a database set up to produce the most efficient route round the UL from a given set of classmarks, so maybe I could try to do that, though it wouldn't be much use to me these days. Or I did wonder about an app for making a brief note whenever I see tube mice. Tube mice make me happy.

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Music makes me feel good

K-pop -- is it the new Italodisco? Don't ask me, I'm 36! Anyway here's an excellent Korean pop song:

George Michael is glad to be alive. Good! I too am glad that George Michael is alive.

Little Mix have a great single coming out. It's Beyonceyish in a good way:

Who is Charli XCX? I can't remember. But I like this song:

Benny Benassi is a figure of mixed blessings but I love this rather soulful remix of a song by Temper Trap.

Noisettes have a great song called Winner which I hope will make them lots of London 2012 money. Here it is remixed:

Of course I saw all these things originally on popjustice, I always do. I'm only really putting them here so I can play them all from one tab.

Monday, 2 July 2012


I went to a choral eucharist at Southwark Cathedral yesterday evening. During the consecration a cat appeared and curled itself up luxuriously in the middle of the kneelers in front of the communion rail, having accurately worked out where in the whole of that huge church it could most comfortably get in everyone's way. It was very annoyed when someone moved it and yowled loudly. In honour of this cat I am posting some cat-related links. Because as we all know, the internet is made of cats.

4OD has lots of good stuff on Youtube, including Chris Morris pointing out in Brass Eye that the ancient Egyptians worshipped cats because they thought they were funny. (Morris was ahead of his time in this as in many things -- this was about eight years before the invention of YouTube itself and ten before I Can Has Cheezburger, and as I recall back in the 90s cats were not seen as intrinsically amusing.)

Google built a neural network and let it loose on the interweb and it came up with a Platonic ideal of a cat.

Here is an excellent illustration of the Smart poem "For I will consider my cat Jeoffry". And by the same artist an excerpt from Edward Lear's poem "How pleasant to know Mr Lear", featuring Old Foss his cat.

And two quick things not to do with cats but I want to close the tabs: 1) a ten-year-old girl bursts into tears in a room full of Rembrandts; her parents take her to a psychiatrist whom she eventually marries; apparently a true story though it sounds like a novel; 2) two small girls interviewed about a bad haircut.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

June's reading

By far the best thing I read in June was Great Works: 50 Paintings Explored by Tom Lubbock. It was my (requested) birthday present from my brother. It's a series of short newspaper columns by a since-deceased art critic, each on a single painting. The way he discusses pictures is unusual and and interesting -- for example to explain the power of an El Greco of a boy blowing on a candle he makes you visualise three short films. The book is quite well illustrated, though the pictures are constrained by its size. I really enjoyed it and discovered people I hadn't heard of like Peter Doig and Philipp Otto Runge. I wish Tom Lubbock had written more I could read. He was only 53 when he died. His obituary tells me that more may be published -- and also that he was a philosophy student at Corpus Christi, which is interesting. Next time I go back I'll see if any of the older fellows remember him.

Otherwise the things I enjoyed were mostly rereading -- Mason and Dixon, Anathem, Moo -- but I did read an excellent New Zealand book called Uncle Trev and his Whistling Bull by Jack Lasenby. This is the sort of book which any age of person could enjoy. It's about a boy in the 1930s who has to spend a long time in bed with some illness. When his mother goes out his bachelor Uncle Trev sneaks in to eat biscuits and tell the boy tall stories about his farm. Very good and unostentatiously charming.

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

There is no Latin word for TLDR

The Vatican Library newsletter pops into my inbox every few months, and it brings a smile to my face despite being pages and pages long. This time I was quite struck by the question of translation. The Cardinal in charge has recently retired from the post, and here is just a small part of what the newsletter had to say about this:
We had known for some time that the Cardinal had presented to the Pope his request to be relieved of so heavy a commitment, and we had adopted the attitude of those who understand, who do not wish a loved one to be afflicted with burdens beyond what he is able to bear. But this does not take away from the sorrow of a separation that each individual experiences by retracing the memories of the years, whether many or few, which he or she spent with Prefect, and later with Cardinal Farina.
The language of the Vatican is, of course, Latin. But I still think this was written in Italian and translated into English, not just because the writer is Italian but because there are a few untranslated Italian phrases in the middle, somehow passed over. Have I just never noticed before that Italian is very Latinate in style as well as in actual vocabulary and grammar? You could translate this into Latin without much rearranging.

Plus I love the closing paragraph:
After all that I have told about us, sometimes the thought comes that we are able to do many beautiful things, and sometimes somebody says so explicitly with expressions of appreciation. It is not that we are unhappy about this. But you will allow me not to forget the Biblical passage from the Book of Judges (chapter 7) which tells the story of Gideon and his fight against the Midianites. Gideon had gathered thirty-two thousand men, but the Lord made him reduce the number to only three hundred fighters because – he explained – if they had been so many, they would have been able to boast before him, saying: "It is my own hand that has saved me." I quickly found that in the Library we are about a hundred, only one third of Gideon's three hundred. We are thus even more protected against that sort of dangerous arrogance! Also for this reason, and through Him who has filled our hands, has enlightened our minds and enlivened our hearts, we give sincere thanks.
To be honest, if you told me that this had been translated straight from Augustine or Anselm I'd probably believe you. (Although they were a bit less likely to congratulate themselves on their escape from dangerous arrogance, which is a little Pooterish.)

Monday, 25 June 2012

A good book

It's a sad truth, for which I am prepared to take no responsibility whatever, that the better people know me the less seriously they tend to take my book recommendations. So here's somebody else, with the authority of the New York Times behind him, talking about how great Pynchon's Mason and Dixon is. He describes it as
less willfully cerebral than the author’s earlier masterworks

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Hurray for Rowan Williams

I went to an excellent talk by Rowan Williams -- in the dialogue format with another poet -- where he talked about language, poetry and translation. Because I went to his difficult Clark lectures on aesthetics some years back in Cambridge, which were published as Grace and Necessity, I was able to follow more than otherwise. I do like the archbishop. He's good at gentle self-deprecating humour, and he is so startlingly but unostentatiously bright. His adoption of Simone Weil's idea that one should always approach other humans with hesitation, e.g. a sort of expectant humility, is something you can actually see him doing as well talking about. It means not putting a name or label on a person but instead being open to them as a human. The Franciscans who used to live in Cambridge were like that. I suppose it's part of the reason why he seems undefinite to the world in general, his refusal to condemn. And certainly many Anglicans (and journalists) would like him to do a bit more condemning -- my evangelical relatives on my father's side don't really approve of him. I think he's just what we need. The Church of England is sometimes called the only organisation that exists for the benefit of its non-members, and I think he provides a good sign for both the church and the non-church. The church needs to be just a bit skew-whiff from the world. It needs not to copy the name-calling style of modern politics. It needs to measure its success by things that are neither worldly nor unworldly but aworldly, or refuse to measure its success at all.

Also it was cool to hear him talk about the poetry culture of his native Wales. I hadn't realised that he was brought up bilingual in Welsh and English. And I enjoyed that he talked intelligently about Geoffrey Hill. An elderly bishop used to bring Hill into lunch sometimes when I was a research fellow. I liked that bishop, since deceased, and a few times actually sat next to Geoffrey Hill. Whereupon I found myself completely unable to say anything at all intelligent to him about his work, much as I like it. It was one of those moments that seems frustratingly bigger than itself, and actually emblematic of a whole part of life. Maybe I should write a poem about it.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Attempts to forget a depressing fact

I'm now in the part of my course where I do my project.  I've more or less accidentally ended up with a very odd one, which involves learning about early brain development.  This involves quite a few rather depressing things; for example I recently found out that there is a thing called the Kazdin hopelessness scale for children. We live in a world in which someone has successfully quantified the hopelessness of children. So I googled Kazdin, worried about the toll that sort of work would take on someone, and discovered that he (presumably the same man) is also the author of The Kazdin Method: Parenting the Defiant Child. Defiant children are probably more fun to work with than hopeless ones, so I've stopped worrying about Kazdin. I'm not going to look into it for fear of what I find, but if Kazdin is the man who did the Learned Helplessness experiments on rats which involved timing how long it took them to drown then a) I really hate him and b) he shouldn't be allowed anywhere near children anyway. I hope someone's looking after the hopeless children.

As always, there are likeable things out there too. Here for example is a good song:

If you go to this website and then click on "Digitale Gemälde" you get the artist's meldings of Renaissance faces with modern photographs. I rather like these, even though the heads of famous madonnas on the bodies of semi-clad ladies are a bit odd.

It's Laurence Durrell's Centenary. There's an exhibition.

You can get The Alexandria Quartet on Kindle now. I prefer The Avignon Quintet, which isn't available on Kindle yet. Also recently available on Kindle are the books of Thomas Pynchon. My favourites are Mason and Dixon, Vineland, and V. (which includes Fairing and his parish among the rats). Plus Neal Stephenson's Baroque Trilogy (Quicksilver, The Confusion, and The System of the World) are available at last. Hurray!

Also, I went to an Art History in the Pub event, which was quite good. It was organised by an art historian who was covered in tattoos -- he even had some small ones on his face. I wished it were socially OK to ask him about this, because I'd imagine that as an art historian either the choosing of tattoos would be fraught with significance, or else alternatively maybe tattoos are sufficiently outside the bounds of general art that they are a liberating opportunity to choose entirely for yourself. The talk was given by a young woman sitting in a big velvet chair on a raised platform, which gave the whole thing a soothing atmosphere. It was about Tudor and Stuart portrait sets, an interesting topic. The person I sat next to writes for the Fortean Times and we talked about cryptozoology for a bit -- a friend of my parents in Devon had an alpaca killed, she swears by a Big Black Cat.

Plus the National Art Pass is doing a three-month free trial. I like the Art Fund. My housemate/landlord dislikes them because their rhetoric is very much about "saving" things for the nation, as if foreigners are likely to set them on fire, drop them in the bath, or something, and I agree that that's a bit dodgy. We "saved" the Macclesfield Psalter from going to the Getty, for example, where they would lavish ridiculous amounts of money on its conservation and what's more, on its scholarship. (My landlord/housemate is going to the Getty on a three-month research jaunt to study a manuscript they have there just for an exhibition, because increasing knowledge is part of their remit and even now they have cash.) (Though of course the Fitzwilliam looks after it beautifully -- they do a wonderful job despite being cash-strapped to the extent that most things that happen there seem to do so as a result of ad hoc donations by rich people.) Anyway, although I don't think things need "saving" I do like the idea of paying some money towards a big fund that can buy things for UK museums, and also you get very good discounts off entry into museums, galleries, and exhibitions. I used to have an Art Pass but I let it lapse because of student poverty, but it was great when I did have it because I rarely went to a paid-entry museum or exhibition where it didn't get me some money off.